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Help wanted: Job sites, academic programs focus on food safety

As American consumers become increasingly concerned about the quality of their food, there’s been an enhanced focus on food safety in the academic and employment fields. Programs leading to degrees and certifications in food safety are growing, along with jobs handling quality assurance in the food industry and auditing producers for compliance with the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA).

Online job sites reflect this trend. Postings for directors of food safety, FSMA compliance coordinators, audit managers, and similar job titles dot the internet landscape. And, as FSMA deadlines near, the field will likely expand even more.

Help wanted job adsThis trend hasn’t been lost on Rex Lawrence, who recently launched Joe Food Safety, a site designed to connect food safety jobs with job seekers.

“On the recruiting side, we are always looking at food safety. Things like FSMA, what’s happening within the industry. It’s heating up and it’s not going to go away. I don’t believe it to be kind of a flash in the pan. I think it’s going to do nothing but get bigger and better, and it’s going to need good people,” Lawrence said.

He said the online service, initially free to those looking to fill food safety positions, will include help writing job titles and descriptions and then filtering resumes as they come in.

“If you’re a company and you’re looking for a director of food safety, we make sure you aren’t getting a resume from a kid who’s flipping burgers at McDonald’s, let’s say,” Lawrence said.

After working for a produce company, Lawrence noticed that it was hard to fill food safety director positions. That experience led him to set up Joe Produce in 2012, which focuses on produce industry employment, and then to connect with educational and other settings where students may be entering food safety fields.

“With the heavier and overall focus on food safety and more employment in food safety, I think the money flowing into food safety is going to increase. There’s going to be more studies and more food safety research,” he said.

restaurantinspector_406x250Universities and other training grounds are paying attention. Michigan State University in East Lansing launched an online Master of Science in Food Safety program in 2002 after a study revealed “an undeniable need on the part of the food industry, government, and public health for their employees to be specifically educated in the many aspects of safeguarding our food supply.”

MSU’s curriculum is designed to permit U.S.-based or international students to earn their master’s degree in food safety while continuing to work. Program statistics indicate there were about 400 graduates between 2002 and 2012.

North Carolina State University in Raleigh offers bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral programs in science, with options to focus on food, nutrition, or bioprocessing.

“The Bureau of Labor and Statistics says that job growth for food related occupations are expected to be driven by the demand for new food products and food safety measures. Food research is expected to increase because the public is more aware of nutrition, health, food safety, and the need to keep herd animals from getting infections,” according to NC State’s program site.

Food safety-related certifications are in increasing demand, with an alphabet soup of acronyms showing up in job ads. Employers, whether farms, food processors, national distributors or international exporters, often want to see GAP, GMP, HACCP, GFSI and other specific experience and/or certifications on an applicant’s resume. There are also CFP, SQF, BRC, IFS, BAP and FSSC 22000 certifications out there to up the ante.

laboratory-testing-406Helping to fill that need is the National Registry of Food Safety Professionals in Orlando, FL, which develops and maintains certification examination programs for food safety. It tests for food safety manager and HACCP certifications and offers a variety of ways to take the exams.

Those who earn food safety-related degrees and certifications can expect to pull in initial salaries ranging from about $37,000 to about $63,000 per year, according to federal government estimates. Where an individual salary lands along that range depends on whether the focus is on agriculture or food science, food service management, or some other related work.

Training is becoming more important in the food industry as companies realize they can’t just assign food safety duties to an administrative staffer who may not have sufficient background to do the job. The stakes are high since a serious recall could put a company out of business, and brand loyalty is hard to win back once it’s been tarnished.

Lawrence said that in the past big companies were usually the ones pushing for more training and certifications from employees because they had so much to lose. However, he said that smaller firms, including packers, producers and manufacturers, are now seeing the need.

“Companies are realizing this is serious,” he said. “Just to do business, they need someone with food safety certification and auditing and a certain level of certification. The smaller and mid-sized companies now are stepping up to the plate because they want to do business with the Costcos and the Wal-Marts of the world.”

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